Report by JADC member
‘Free Assange’ at the Tolpuddle Festival
On Sunday 21stJuly three campaigners for JADC, (Julian Assange Defence Committee), went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset to raise awareness of the campaign. We met a lot of supportand many people took our leaflets eagerly. On the march which marks the end of the Festival our banner was cheered: ‘Free Assange’ rang out across the English countryside!
Did people instinctively recognise the parallels between the stories of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (honoured at this Festival) and the hounding of Julian Assange? Earlier we had been on the village trail, a wonderful two hour history lesson about their story, given as we walked round this picture perfect Dorset village. As our guide, the curator of Tolpuddle museum, talked we began to notice the historical parallels between that story of 1834 and this very 21stcentury scandal.
It wasn’t just that Assange is an Australian citizen and the Dorsetlabourers were sentenced to transportation to Van Diemens Land. Assange faces extradition to the US, to a secret trial and a possible prison sentence there of 175 years. It wasn’t just the wider implications of both cases. The action taken against the Tolpuddle Martyrs threatened the rights of all the nascent trade unions in Britain in the early nineteenth century. The story of Julian Assange is “emblematic of a global pushback on free speech” and the US indictment against him threatens every investigative journalist across the globe.
It was both of those but also the parallels between the legal processes in both cases and the realisation of how little had changed since 1834.
In both cases laws intended for very different situations were used to trap people whose activities the Establishment sought to stop. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were accused of swearing an illegal oath – a law intended to quell mutiny in the Navy, and an action undertaken by many an upper class Freemasons Lodge. Assange was charged with skipping bail: a law intended to ensure that people did not escape justice, not to keep them effectively imprisoned (‘arbitrarily detained’ in the UN’s judgement) for nine years without trial.
In both cases the judges and jury had connections with the Establishment and were set on its dogged defence. They were vindictive, inhumane, free with their opinions and utterly insouciant and arrogant. In both cases excessive punishments were meted out. Some of that punishment was extra-judicial – that is, it was inflicted on the families of the Martyrs as well, that the Martyrs were treated extra harshly in the penal colony, while Assange has suffered physical and mental torture out of all proportion to any allegation made against him.
But unfortunately that is where the parallels end. In 1834 when news of the treatment of the Dorset men got out, the nascent trade union movement in Britain mobilised, and a major demonstration in London attracted 100,000 people. Petitions across the country won 800,000 signatures, and within three years, the Martyrs had won a free pardon and were on their way home.
In 2019 we have still to mount a comparable campaign for Assange – because that is the only way he will get justice….and we must do it NOW in the few months left before his extradition hearing in February.